Calls to learn lessons from pandemics of the past

Roland Chesters, a disability development consultant.

A man who was given just two weeks to live after he tested positive for HIV is calling for people to learn lessons from pandemics of the past – as we face the current health crisis.

Disability development consultant Roland Chesters said ignorance kills – as it has with AIDS since the 1980s.

His has drawn parallels with the current attacks on Asian people over coronavirus in the UK to the discrimination the gay community has faced.

There has been a spike in vigilante attacks after the deadly disease spread across the world from Wuhan in China.

Roland Chesters of Luminate

Fear

Roland, 59, said: “We have seen Oriental people attacked around the country in connection with the coronavirus in the wrongly held belief that such individuals are somehow responsible.

“I’ve seen staff from Chinese restaurants making pleas for people to eat in their restaurant before the shutdown because people have kept away – driven by ignorance.

“Stigma comes from fear, which comes from a lack of understanding. There is conflicting information and misinformation out there, leading to some people reacting irrationally.”

But the disability development consultant said there is greater support for those affected by coronavirus compared to the gay community in the early years of the AIDS pandemic.

Roland, who has been with his partner Richard for over 20 years and contracted the virus from his only other previous relationship, said: “This virus is not linked to one group whereas AIDS was previously seen as the ‘gay plague.’

“Back in the 1980s, no one seemed to care that it was killing homosexuals and the gay community felt very much abandoned. Now we see communities rallying to help the vulnerable.

“We can learn from the past not to make assumptions about people or lay blame on anyone. Every individual needs to take responsibility – rather than thinking this doesn’t affect them.”

Fake news

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has labelled the spread of fake news on the outbreak of coronavirus an ‘infodemic.’

Roland, who heads Luminate to educate people around HIV and other disabilities, said: “HIV has taught us that misinformation can prevent people from changing their behaviour.

“Coronvirus may not be a death sentence for most people like AIDS once was, but it is very contagious and there are some people who will develop serious illness or die from it.”

Roland, who speaks out with the Terrence Higgins Trust’s community project ‘Positive Voices‘, said: “Social media can be great because it can get information out quickly and call communities to action. But weeding out the truth can be difficult.

“Misinformation and homophobia were rife with the AIDS pandemic. People were afraid to touch – fearing it would lead to infection – and gay men were generally treated with suspicion.

“There is a lot of fake news out there around coronavirus, including ways to treat or prevent it, which can be dangerous. At best such myths can cause panic; at worst, complacency.”

‘Don’t die of ignorance’

The 1980s “tombstone” public health campaign ran the slogan ‘don’t die of ignorance.’

There was a drop in new diagnoses initially, but the campaign was not sustained and numbers started to increase in later years.

The WHO is concerned about the current levels of rumours and misinformation around coronavirus – saying it is hampering the response.

WHO director general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus speaking at a security conference in Munich, Germany, last month, said: “Fake news spreads faster and more easily than this virus, and is just as dangerous.”

Roland has shared his experience, and that of other HIV positive people, in a book —Ripples: From the Edge of Life.